Ping Pong, Prop Bets & The Performance Zone

Mastering the difference between the growth zone and the performance zone is critical to your productivity, development and success.

Here’s how one rogue gambler applied his mastery of both zones in one of the craziest prop bets of all time.

Dealer’s Choice

Bel Air Country Club. Los Angeles, California. 1973.

The wager: One game of Ping-Pong. First player to 21. Winner gets $10,000.

The players: A skinny Stetson-wearing Texan named Thomas Austin Preston, Jr. versus the 1939 Wimbledon champion.

One stipulation: Mr. Preston gets to choose the paddles. They have to be the same type of paddles, but he gets to choose.

After some shrewd pre-bet give-and-take, both men shake hands. Challenge made. Challenge accepted.

The lanky man in the Stetson? Amarillo Slim, one of the greatest prop bettors and poker players who ever lived. The tennis champ? Bobby Riggs, once the world’s number one tennis player.

As you can imagine, buzz about the wager traveled fast. Word spread quickly among club members—get to the club house tomorrow.

$10,000 is a lot of money now, but it was worth $55,000 in 1973. That’s a lot of gas for one of these sweet rides.

The next day at the appointed time, onlookers crowded back into the luxury club’s table tennis room. Loitering turned to speculation as the growing audience began asking different versions of the same questions: “Does he really think he can win? Is he crazy? What are we about to witness here?”

Both men had a reputation for eccentric gambling tastes, but this

The Reckoning

Slim entered the room at match time right on queue carrying a large satchel. He placed the satchel under the green playing table, just out of view.

The two men exchanged brief pleasantries. The bet was restated for the benefit of the crowd. They shook hands one last time.

Game on.

The middle-aged poker player slowly made his way back to his end of the table. He bent down and began rummaging around in the satchel. Whispers turned to chatter. The chatter turned to sporadic hoots and shouts. What did Slim have up his sleeve and what was in that bag?

Slim gleefully milked each passing second of suspense. When he finally stood up and presented his paddle selection, the crowd gawked. Stunned most of all, however, was Bobby Riggs.

Slim’s chosen paddles for the $10,000 wager?

Two oversized iron skillets.

What happened next may surprise you even more than his choice of paddles.

Slim beat the tennis champ 21-8.

How did the gambler in the cowboy hat beat a Wimbledon champion at his own game and walk away $10,000 richer?

When To Hold ‘Em, When to Fold ‘Em

Imagine the grade school student who’s asked to draw a portrait of a classmate. The drawing turns out more stick figure than Cézzane. The frustrated child permanently dismisses his or her artistic abilities into adulthood with this self-accusatory broadside:

“I’m not an artist—I can’t even draw.”

This, however, is not true. Anyone can draw.

In fact, with just a few hours of intentional practice, anyone can dramatically improve their drawing skills.

Doubt it? Try Betty Edwards’ best-selling “Drawing On The Right Side of the Brain”. Your finished work may not be Lourve-worthy, but your illustration skills will improve markedly.

How To Play A Better Hand

Here’s the problem. It’s easy to muddle the growth zone and the performance zone.

We attempt an activity for the first time, but it doesn’t go well. We then make a permanent false judgement based on insufficient evidence that may hinder our joy, fulfillment and wellbeing for a lifetime!

Like the grade school art example, we often hold ourselves to a performance standard instead of embracing our time in the growth zone. This is the exact opposite of what Amarillo Slim did.

He knew he could never beat Riggs straight-up at his own game. Not on raw skill alone. He needed an edge. Slim was a poker player, not a former Wimbledon champion.

But, Slim did have an edge. It was just less obvious.

After years of hustling in smoke-filled pool halls and all night card games, he knew how to invest in the growth zone. Crucially, he also knew when to make the transition from growth to performance. By the time Slim committed to a higher stakes performance zone opportunity, succeeding at the performance itself was almost a formality.

You see, before Slim even made the bet with Riggs, he had already invested time in the growth zone honing his ping pong skills with, you guessed it…an actual oversized iron skillet.

Riggs spent the first several points furiously trying to wield the heavy skillet like a regulation-sized paddle. By the time the tennis champ got the hang of it, Slim was too far ahead.

Match point.

From A Pair Of Clubs To A Royal Flush

The growth zone is where we give ourselves the freedom to hone our skills, build our knowledge base, innovate unexpected solutions and make lots of judgement-free mistakes.

The performance zone is when we harness and apply our investment in the growth zone and put our training and preparation to a higher stakes test.

Sustainable success depends on intentional growth zone investment in preparation to deliver optimal results in the performance zone.

The trick is making it very clear when you are investing in the growth zone. This draws an important boundary around your time, focus and energy.

By granting yourself the freedom to truly experiment in the growth zone, you make better mistakes which leads to smarter growth which leads to better performance results.

Think of any master-level athlete or performer. Extreme sports athletes spend hundreds of hours practicing tricks before actually attempting their physics-defying stunts in competition.

Similarly, Slim spent an afternoon dinging ping pong balls off of the rounded rim of a skillet before he finally got the hang of it.

What’s one way you can invest in your growth zone today that might payoff in your next performance?

The House Always Wins—So, Become The House

Before you attempt your next project, clearly define your own growth and performance zones. Determine how much time and energy you plan to commit to each zone.

A few examples:

• Writers: “How long will I research ‘issue XYZ’ (growth) before I write and publish an article about it (performance)?”

• Speakers: “How many hours will I prepare and practice my speech (growth) before delivering my actual presentation to a live audience (performance)?”

• Athletes: “How many times do I practice the Crane Kick (growth) before I use it in a tournament to defeat the evil Cobra Kai dojo (performance)?”

This little exercise helps you differentiate between the two zones of any goal or project. The skill building, experimental phase and the official performance phase.

Reframe your personal and professional development mindset. Move away from a cluttered view of growth and development. Give yourself grace, freedom and clarity in the growth zone so you can crush the performance zone.

Remember ol’ Amarillo Slim and the fry skillets.

When we give ourselves the proper liberty in the growth zone, we clear the way for life-changing discoveries, smarter improvement and superior results.

Own the growth zone and you’ll own the performance zone.


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If you or your team want to learn more about how to turn your natural talents into true strengths, please send an email to hello@strenghtslauncher.com. My workshops don’t involve ping pong or skillets (yet), but you will have fun, gain loads of actionable insights, and learn how to deliver immediate improved results.